BREAST CANCER AWARENESS: Tina Graetz is happy to be able to face her mirror and wear her favourite clothes once again.
BREAST CANCER AWARENESS: Tina Graetz is happy to be able to face her mirror and wear her favourite clothes once again. Belinda Scott

Tina Graetz's long journey to innovative breast solution

TINA Graetz is lucky to be planning for a new house and some major travel with her husband.

Lucky because she was careful, so maybe luck did not have much to do with it after all.

Tina is a breast cancer survivor who was diagnosed at 40 and only then because she always chose to have a mammogram every year.

Fit, funny and whippet slim, the hard working Coffs Harbour chef, wife and mother didn't have any symptoms, but she had a history of multiple cysts in her breasts, which she describes as "so many it was like rocky road".

"The cancer diagnosis was a shock," Tina said

"I had a mammogram and two days later they said I have to have a biopsy and two days after that my life changed and everything was go, go, go."

Tina said at the time, she didn't give any thought to breast reconstruction.

"I was so upset over the cancer thing I said 'just get it off'.

" I was so angry - why me?

"I was so young and I had no symptoms - even my doctor was surprised."

She had chemotherapy for six months after surgery

"All my long hair fell out.

"It felt like something was pulling my hair non-stop, then the next day it all fell off - it was very upsetting. Since then I have kept it short.

Although she had cancer in only one breast, she decided to have a double mastectomy and have both breasts removed.

"I thought (the cancer) was going to go to the other side and I had a friend who had one breast off and then said it did not feel right.

"I thought that's it, I don't want reconstruction."

But two years later, with surgery and chemotherapy well behind her, Tina said she became frustrated with being unable to find clothes to suit her.

"T-shirts didn't seem to fit nicely and I would see myself in the mirror and feel upset," Tina said.

"I was unhappy and it made me depressed."

She talked to her GP who sent her to local surgeon Dr Bill Ross.

Dr Ross referred her on to Sydney-based specialist plastic and reconstructive surgeon Dr Ellis Choy, who visits Coffs Harbour on a monthly basis.

Because of her tiny frame, which has not a gram of fat on it, she did not have any spare body tissue for a plastic surgeon to use in re-creating new breasts, posing a challenge for the surgeon.

Dr Choy designed and carried out a staged plan which involved gradually expanding the skin of her chest wall; creating a hammock using donated tissue from America and finally adding implants.

Tina was one of the first Australian patients to have the procedure using the specially-prepared donated tissue.

Multiple procedures were involved and Tina said the chest expansion, carried out in stages, was painful for the first few days each time, but otherwise she had little pain.

"I am very happy with the result, especially with Dr Choy, who was very caring always," Tina said.

"He told me it was going to be painful, but that my body would get used to it.

"It took about one year from the first referral to when it was all done and he explained everything to me."

She is happy that she delayed her breast reconstruction, but now wants to move on, although she is willing to talk about her experiences to other women faced with the same decisions.

She is deeply thankful for the support given to her by her husband and her friends, and her top piece of advice to others is not to go it alone.

"Ashley always came with me," Tina said.

"Make sure you have someone to talk to, so you never feel alone and can see the light at the end of the tunnel."

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